It used to be that a novel like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover generated a lot of controversy. When it was released, its sexuality and obscene language led to much outrage and many bans. However, when viewed in the oeuvre of Lawrence’s entire literary output it is a fitting piece in a larger puzzle of intimate human interaction. Lawrence’s ultimate masterpiece of human intimacy takes shape in the two book saga consisting of The Rainbow and Women in Love. In these two novels, Lawrence plumbs the depths of the difficulties, vulnerabilities, joy, and cruelty that make up interpersonal affairs. For Lawrence, intimate connection between two people served as a kind of miracle, a divinely inspired event. This was true of friendship between two men, the love between sisters, or the sexual love between a man and a woman and possibly between two people of the same sex. Lawrence toed the topic of homosexuality in both his work and his life and while an in depth study of Lawrence and homosexuality has merit, suffice it to say for this article that his interests lay in the dynamics between two individuals attempting to live in concord with one another.
The first novel of this saga, The Rainbow, concentrates more on the intimate and sexual dynamics between man and wife and how these dynamics affect the whole of their experiences. Lawrence paints a picture not only of how sexual dynamics affect and alter spirituality, but of how sexual relations themselves are a kind of spirituality and that lovemaking and all of its ancillary or secondary pieces bring people into contact with the divine. The Rainbow presents a striking, poetic, and unabashed look at the souls of two people striving to know each other. Lawrence writes of the intimate soul in such revealing detail it is no wonder his works have suffered constant admonition. It could be argued that it was not the sexual detail that so offended Lawrence’s contemporaries as the revelation of human intimacy.
Rarely had a writer before Lawrence so meticulously recorded the tumult of the individual soul and its conflict with and desire of its love object. Lawrence shows both external conflicts, common to all stories of relationships, but also inner conflicts, the illogical contradictions of desire. The word “inchoate” is often used by Lawrence when describing a character’s inner state. The word, which means incipient, uncreated, immature, is Lawrence’s way of reminding the reader that the unfolding of the individual is an ongoing process. The self reveals to the self throughout life and those convictions which we may hold to so tightly today may be tomorrow’s anathemas.
Lawrence reaches the apex of this intimate study with Women in Love. In this novel he not only explores the relationships between the two main couples, but also the relationships of one man to another. While one may convincingly argue that the two male characters of the book, Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich, have repressed homosexual desires for each other, it is also interesting to look at their relationship as it is written, that is a sort of heterosexual love for a close friend. Birkin and Crich are of very different character and the dynamics between them change throughout the novel, as each man attempts to reconcile his friendship with the burgeoning desire he feels for his respective woman. One should not be deceived by the title of Women in Love. In many ways the story centers more on the male characters than the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula, their female counterparts.
Women in Love deftly probes the power dynamics of both intersex and interclass relationships. Gerald Crich, the coal magnate, must acquire. His desire for ownership, not only over his vast coal empire, but for Gudrun Brangwen, leads to his eventual downfall. Gudrun is a strong, independent person and when she refuses to allow herself to become Gerald’s object, his entire world, which until then revolved around successful acquisition, begins to crumble. It is in fact Gudrun who holds the power in the relationship, despite Gerald’s higher class status. She knows he wants to possess her and uses this fact against him almost cruelly. Rupert and Ursula’s relationship turns a different direction. The nature of their fundamental characters aligns and allows them to blossom into what one might call true love. But in both relationships, Lawrence constantly pushes the envelope of intimacy, delving deeper and deeper into the psyche of his characters and how they interact with one another.
Modern society may no longer be shocked by the now tame seeming sexual content of Lawrence’s novels, but it is no less vulnerable to the power of its intimate revelation. One who reads Lawrence in the hopes of a smutty affair is going to be either disappointed or enlightened. Despite the claims of many of Lawrence’s contemporaries, his work is neither smut nor garbage, but rather literature, revealing the portion of our soul that can be smut and garbage. It is this self-revelation that the censors feared, their hysterical cries of “dirt” are misplaced, stemming from their own introspection and the vehement denial that, at heart, each of us possesses a strong, amoral sexual desire. The difference between them and Lawrence is that Lawrence dares to confront it and examine it in the context of social interaction.